Epiphany – Birth or death?

January 7, 2007

“A cold coming we had of it; just the worst time of the year for a journey”.
The opening lines of perhaps the best-known poem about the Epiphany, T.S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’.

It is not a comfortable poem. It ends with a question: “Were we led all that way for Birth or Death?” which is a strange question for a poem about a nativity. The narrator is sure that there was a birth – he says they had evidence and no doubt; but there is no description in the poem of the child or the birth. All the poem gives are references in the second verse to the signs of new life we find in springtime – running water, vegetation and vines. But that verse also contains references to death – to Christ’s crucifixion which came in the spring of the year: three trees on a low sky, six hands at an open door, dicing for pieces of silver, feet kicking empty wineskins. And the verse ends in an ambiguous way: “It was ( you may say) satisfactory”. Is it talking about finding the new born child – a satisfactory end to the journey, a fulfilment of prophecy; or does it refer to Christ’s death, which was described in the Communion Service which Eliot knew as “the full perfect sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the world”?

We might wonder why the experience of finding the child Jesus was such a devastating experience for the wise men that it felt like their death. Perhaps because what they found was so different from what they had expected. They were led to find ‘The King of the Jews’ but they found him not in the palaces of Jerusalem, surrounded by courtiers and soldiers, but in an inn in Bethlehem, the child of a craftsman and a teenage mother. It challenged all their ideas of earthly power – how could this child, with no wealth and no influence, be the one who would restore the fortunes of Israel?

But the child was also a challenge to their religious ideas. All the gods at that time were seen as external to the world, capricious and powerful, like mighty rulers, ensuring obedience by the exercise of power over the forces of nature. Yet this child, as they seemed to know, was a special representative of God. And he came from within the human race, he was very much of the earth, he was small and helpless. What a challenge to the religious ideas of the Magi. What a challenge to ours.

In talking of both birth and death in his account of the Epiphany, Eliot is reflecting accurately Matthew’s infancy narrative. Both weave elements from the Bible into a narrative which alludes to the end as well as the beginning of Christ’s life, and to the Second Coming.

Matthew builds on a prophecy of Second Isaiah in his picture of Gentile kings coming from afar to the ‘light’ of the Messiah, paying him homage, and bringing him gifts of gold and incense. But Matthew adds a gift of myrrh to those mentioned in the Old Testament – a reference forward to the spices which will be bought to anoint Jesus’ body after his death.

Matthew’s Epiphany story, like Eliot’s poem, is not a comfortable one. There is a birth, and homage from the magi, but the birth brings death to the innocent – and the story of the slaughter of the innocents refers backwards to two great tragedies in Jewish history – the murder of the baby boys on the orders of the Pharaoh in Egypt, and the exile in Babylon, which is the incident that the prophecy of ‘Rachel weeping for her children’ refers to.

But it also has a forward reference to the death of Jesus, in which another King Herod is an accomplice. So, when Matthew brings the magi to the child Jesus they are faced with both birth and death – as they are in Eliot’s poem.

T S Eliot wrote ‘The Journey of the Magi’ just after his own Confirmation in the Anglican Church in 1927. It was the culmination of a long and painful journey for him. It was especially painful because many of his contemporaries were making the journey in the opposite direction – from the strong faith of the late 19th century into unbelief. Like the magi, Eliot was leaving behind the easy and hedonistic world, in his case that of the intellectual of the twenties. Like the magi, he has “voices ringing in his ears saying that this was all folly”. His colleagues Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway mocked his new-found faith, saying he had ‘gone over to the ignorant’. His conversion placed an added strain on his marriage, which broke up a few years later.

Everything in his life had been upset by his new-found faith, his intellectual life, his social life, his family life. He was no longer at ease in the old life – the old dispensation – but he was too new a convert to be at ease in the new one. Like St. Paul, who says he would sometimes rather die, so he could be with Christ, Eliot’s Magi would welcome another death – because only then, perhaps, would they be certain that the painful journey of faith had been worthwhile.

Matthew’s community would have appreciated the unease of the Magi. They had come to Christ, from a Jewish or a Gentile background. They would have accepted new life in Christ in baptism ( symbolised by the running stream in Eliot’s poem) and drunk the ‘new wine’ in Communion. But their acceptance of the new faith would have distanced them from their families and their former social contacts. It was a time when Jewish Christians were beginning to be unwelcome in the synagogues – and Gentile Christians were beginning to face persecution from Rome. For many of them, acceptance of Christ would have been ‘hard and bitter agony’ and their new birth into Christ would have meant they risked death – as is the case for some Christian converts from other major religions today.

But the journey of the Magi is also a symbol of everyone’s journey of faith. Many of us have the experience of having to find Christ anew many times during our lives. Perhaps something we have
read, or a conversation we had, or an illness, or a new relationship, or growing up or becoming old, means the relationship we had with God is no longer satisfactory. We have to travel in our minds and in our hearts, away from the safety of our previous religious life until we find something that makes sense to us again, and our faith is reborn. Often this is difficult; we have to leave behind things we have treasured, perhaps the certainties of faith we were brought up with, perhaps people we have worshipped with, or ways of worship that we are comfortable with. We may find our journey brings us to a new, life-giving understanding of God – but also to losses which sometimes feel like death.

Were we led all that way for birth or death? If we genuinely seek to meet with God in Christ, our spiritual journey will always face us with both death and birth. Like the Magi we travel in faith, trusting in the promise that our journey’s end will be (you may say) satisfactory.

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